England defender Ashley Cole faces a race against time to be fit for Fabio Capello’s World Cup squad.
The Chelsea left-back, 29, underwent surgery on Friday after breaking an ankle in Wednesday’s defeat by Everton. He will be out for around three months.
Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti insists he is “hopeful” Cole can recover in time to play in South Africa.
The injury also raises the prospect of Manchester City’s Wayne Bridge playing alongside John Terry for England.
Bridge, a direct replacement for first-choice left-back Cole, was portrayed as the innocent party in the tabloid scandal that led to Terry being sacked as England captain by Capello last week.
Terry is alleged to have had an affair with Bridge’s ex-girlfriend Vanessa Perroncel, and Bridge has not yet indicated whether he is prepared to play alongside his former Chelsea team-mate for England.
But if Cole cannot rehabilitate his damaged ankle in time, there is a good chance Capello would want Bridge to start in England’s first World Cup match against the United States on 12 June.
The Italian picks an initial 35-man squad for South Africa by 12 May, but the crucial date for Cole is 1 June, the cut-off date set by FIFA for teams to name their final 23-man squads.
Capello said: “It’s bad news for me because he is an important player.
“Ashley is very good when we defend and good going forward. He is really dangerous and I hope this problem will be not so bad.”
Chelsea described Friday’s operation as “successful” but are preparing for the worst in terms of Cole’s return to action, with doubts as to whether he will feature in any games before the last round of Premier League matches on 9 May.
The FA Cup final, which Chelsea remain hot favourites to win, is on 15 May with the Champions League final on 22 May.
More realistic targets are England’s two Wembley friendlies – against Mexico on 24 May, and Japan five days later.
Blues boss Ancelotti said: “I hope Ashley can rest and will come back before the end of this season. In three months he should be ready to play for Chelsea and also for England at the World Cup.”
Former Stamford Bridge favourite Graeme Le Saux told BBC Radio 5 live: “The timing couldn’t be worse because Ashley’s right on the fringe of being nearly right to play in a major tournament. It’s really against the clock.”
Ex-Leeds and England defender Danny Mills said: “It will be a frantic race to see if he can recover in time to make the World Cup. He’s really got to get his head down and do everything he possibly can.”
Cole’s battle for fitness mirrors the situation in 2002 and 2006, when the nation was kept on tenterhooks as David Beckham and then Wayne Rooney attempted World Cup comebacks after each suffering a broken foot.
But Mills suggested a possible silver lining to Cole’s injury, in that it might help restore a working relationship between Terry and Bridge.
He said: “It was always speculated what would happen and maybe it’s forced people’s hands. Maybe Terry and Bridge are going to have to work out their relationship and sort it out sooner rather than later.”
Capello is sure to consider the claims of alternative left-backs Everton’s Leighton Baines’ and Aston Villla’s Stephen Warnock should Cole not make it to South Africa.
Everton boss Moyes, speaking before Cole’s injury, said: “Bainesy on his day is a match for any of them and I know Fabio Capello knows about him. He is certainly in and around the reckoning. He has been a very consistent player for us this season.”
Everton’s Landon Donovan, a certainty for the US World Cup squad, made the second-half tackle on Cole on Wednesday which forced the England man to limp off the field – though it was a mundane-looking and perfectly legitimate challenge.
And a scan on Thursday revealed the full extent of the injury, with Chelsea revealing in a statement that they expected Cole would be out for “approximately three months”.
Chelsea have plenty of cover in their squad. Russia international Yury Zhirkov is comfortable at left-back and Portugal international Paulo Ferreira can also play in the same position despite being signed by former boss Jose Mourinho as a right-back.
Blues boss Ancelotti adde: “We are very disappointed because [Cole] is a very important player for us. (Source: BBC)
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